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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 20

 

"Lady Dharva?"

For a moment, Dharva didn't respond, not used to hearing her name after such a honorarium. She blinked at her reflection in the darkened glass of the bedroom window, her mind far away. Only when she saw movement in the reflection behind her did she turn. A young woman stood in the doorway of the guest chamber Dharva had been given. Not a maid by her clothing, small and pretty in a long, gilt threaded sari. She smiled hesitantly at Dharva. Dharva stared back owlishly, bewildered by this surprise visitor, her thoughts still chaotic from the news Pyphin had given her earlier in the day.

"Yes?" she asked in a small voice.

"I'm Sa-kre Aya. I was asked to come and see that you had something adequate to wear for the banquet tonight."

Dharva continued to stare. She thought the Sa-kre was a title of some sort. She looked down at her travel worn tunic and trousers and felt a wash of embarrassment. Plain, rustic Dharva who hadn't a second set of clothes to her name at the moment. Her face went a little red as the girl came into the room, looking her over critically.

"I'll call for a bath." The girl declared, then smiled brightly. "I have just the thing for you, with your hair and eyes.

"You do?"

"Oh, yes. Cerulean blue silk that my most esteemed husband brought for me last season. I'll see that you have a few other things as well, Lord Anson says you lost your clothes. How terrible."

"Oh. Thank you --- Se-kre Aya."

"Just Aya. I'm the youngest Se-kre, so I'm not much for status."

Dharva recalled what the title indicated. Royal spouse. One of many. Her eyes widened a little.

"Your husband is ----"

"Prince Ilrath." The girl finished with a grin.

"How many Se-kre does he have?"

"Seven. But he's young yet. He spoke highly of you -- perhaps he envisions you as number eight."

Dharva gaped at her. There was not a speck of jealousy in the young woman's voice. But, then again an eighth wife would move her up a rung in the pecking order of royal wives.

Aya was pleasant enough, though her chatter was idle and mostly centered about the newest fashion, who was sleeping with who within the court. Topics Dharva knew absolutely nothing about and so silently listened to while the Se-kre helped her with her bath -- a most embarrassing experience -- and then took her to her own rooms and draped a beautiful blue sari about Dharva. Dharva had never felt material so fine. It slid over her skin like water or air. She looked at herself in Aya's mirror and hardly knew the girl she saw. Her hair was growing back. It almost reached her shoulders now, a softly curling tumble that framed a too thin face. Her eyes were huge saucers that matched the sari perfectly.

The banquet was a hastily thrown together gathering. Master Pyphin would have rather set out immediately, but royalty was not so rashly moved. The emperor had to plan and convene his advisors and generals. Those that had not been here this morning when the wizards had arrived had arrived tonight. Dharva thanked the spirits that it was not up to her to sway any disbelieves. She could barely talk without stuttering to most of the haughty nobles who had spared her half a glance.

In Aya's company she arrived at the great banquet hall and found herself immediately in the midst of a crowded, talk filled chamber. She scanned the array of faces and saw very few that she knew. A few of the apprentices that were no comfort at all, and no sign of Anson or master Pyphin.

"My lovely, lovely little Se-Kre." Ilrath came up to them, taking Aya's hand and pressing his lips against it. He fairly glittered in fine blue silk, threaded with heavy gold and silver thread. He had a dangling set of diamonds in his ear. He turned his eyes upon Dharva and she found herself blushing.

"Ah, you have done her justice, Aya. I knew there was purest gold beneath the tarnish of road dust."

When he took her hand and kissed it, in the midst of all this splendor, with her feeling as if she wore some other girl's body in Aya's beautiful clothes, she felt her equilibrium abandon her. She must have looked as terrified as she felt, for Ilrath took her arm and tucked it under his, leading her into the room. If Aya was disturbed by her husband attention towards another woman, she never let it show. In fact she seemed content to wonder off into the room, speaking to this richly dressed guest or that.

The prince lead Dharva into the crowd -- well it wasn't really a crowd, she realized once she was actually in the midst of it, just about a dozen people aside from the members of her own party. Mostly stuffy looking, serious men who were probably chancellors or advisors or the emperor's military leaders. None of them even bothered to spare her a glance, other than one or two accessing one's and those were nothing more than a man sizing up the attributes of a woman and seeing nothing past the physical endowments. She certainly didn't have enough of those to keep anyone's prolonged attention.

"Dharva. Spirits, you look amazing." Anson stepped out from the group of old wizards at the end of the obscenely long dining table, staring at her as if she'd come baring sack fulls of gold.

Her blush came back and she fought to keep it down. Pyphin looked up from the very ornately robed man that sat at the end of the table and spared her a glance. "Oh, there you are, girl. I was looking for you."

The man they were all attending was dressed in fabulously ornate robes. His trim beard was liberally peppered with gray and his lined brow circled with a plain ring of gold. The emperor, Dharva thought, amazed to find herself standing so casually in attendance to the Emperor of Khell himself. She wondered if she ought to say something respectful or bow.

Pyphin didn't give her the chance, beckoning her closer with one impatient hand. "How many ships did you see in the harbor at Vahnatu that might have been war vessels?"

She blinked at him. She was no expert in discerning a trading skiff from a warship. They all looked much the same to her.

"I -- I don't know. There were maybe a dozen ships -- real ships not fishing boats in the harbor when I got there. When we left there were more, I think. It was dark all the times I was at the docks."

"She has a fleet of ships at her command." The old wizard said dourly. "The only reason she didn't use one of hers when she took me was out of secrecy I suppose. She's a sly one for covering her tracks."

"The trading fleet of a Danarian trader does not intimidate me." The emperor said.

"Don't be a fool, Thydis." Pyphin snapped. The emperor's eyes went a little hard. Several of the men hovering around him looked offended for his benefit. Pyphin ignored it.

"If you think its just her you have to worry about, you're wrong. She and her fanatics may have schemed and plotted to raise the dark one, but I assure you, we and she may find that Kerisai has an agenda of its own. Spirits willing we will not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors and let the great spirit wreck havoc on our world before we take steps to stop it."

"I have studied the histories, old man." Emperor Thydis said stiffly. "I am well aware of the destruction the great spirits wrecked. And I respect your wisdom more than any other in the handling of them. I simply do not wish to jump to hasty conclusions. I see no reason to gather an army when there is no enemy in sight to defend against."

"You won't see the enemy until its too late. And then all it will take is one man. The shell Kerisai inhabits will be enemy enough for your army. And his followers will burn a path of destruction in his path. It is his way. But they have to cross the ocean to do it. And to do that they need ships. Even Kerisai can't walk on water. Delay him there and perhaps we might have to time we need to rouse a force that can stop him."

"The other spirit. Kurisar." Ilrath breathed reverently. "The guardian of light."

"The one and the same." Pyphin agreed. He had bothered to brush his hair and beard, but no one had managed to corner him into changing into the fancy garments the rest of them wore. He looked the wretched old man in the midst of such finery, and yet all it took was one look into his eyes and he was more compelling than any other man in the room. "Ready a fleet and set it to guarding the northern coast for that is where he will go. He knows what rests there as well as we do. He will try and destroy his counterpart before it can rise against him."

 

*

 

It was hard travel, along the coast of the peninsula. It would have been impossible on horse. It was barely manageable for men on foot, rocky slopes and sheer cliffs dropping down to frothing surf far below making the way treacherous.

It was probably the only reason they hadn't been pursued, Collin thought dourly, taking a breath in the lee of a rocky overhang, the salt spray of the ocean dampening clothes and stiffening hair. The ragged group of men that navigated the narrow beach were exhausted, weary from hunger and thirst. Hollow eyed from seeing the deaths of comrades and imagining their own at the hands of the murdering beasts that had slaughtered a village of innocent children.

Even though he doubted there was anyone on their trail now, four days after their escape, Collin kept looking back, scanning the cliffs overhead, the turn of sandy beach behind them, for the black silhouette of pursuers.

They had found a freshwater spring yesterday to quench their thirsts, but they had fled with no skins, no food, no weapons, no supplies to insure survival. Not that any of them were woodsmen. Not that a one of them could find his arse in the light of day stranded on land, even with the sea so close she threatened to suck them all into her embrace.

Damn you, Theo. Where by the spirit's breath are you? But he was afraid of the answer. He was afraid Theo and Wing had joined the funeral pyre that had burned through that last night in the Children's village. He was petrified to think what would happen if the seal on that damned dark stone the children guarded was broken. He had grown up with the dire predictions of the suffering that would plague the world if such a thing happened.

He didn't speak of it to the men. They were too spooked without such nightmare speculation. Urchin cried at night in his sleep, too young to have seen what he'd seen. During the day the boy was hollow eyed and silent. Of them all, Lhoki was handling the situation the best. A resourceful young man, that. To have survived slavery and life on the street in a city whose strings were pulled by a mistress such as the lady Tiana.

On the morning of the fifth day out, after they had left the coast of the peninsula behind and traveled the less daunting beaches of the main coastal line, they came upon what appeared to be a small fishing village. A ramshackle little settlement with huts made of mud and thatch and no clear road leading to or from it into the surrounding wood. A listing, much patched ship sat moored a hundred feet out from the single dock. There were men offloading casks and bales from a quarter boat onto the shore.

As the ragged bunch of refugees staggered into the village, dark stares turned their way. What few women there were disappeared into the shelter of huts, while the men drew knives and boathooks from their belts.

Damn. Not a honest village at all but a catch place for smugglers or black marketeers. Such folk had no need whatsoever for hapless wanderers stumbling into their hidey hole. He imagined the coast of Danar was riddled with such places. He also imagined these men would not be interested in listening to the sob story of a band of strangers.

Collin held up his hands, motioning the men behind him to make no sudden moves as the armed pirates cautiously approached. They would probably hack and pummel first and debate what their victims were doing way out here after they'd laid the lot of them out. Collin hoped to avoid that.

"Hello there. Would that ship of yours happen to be heading back up the coast towards Vahnatu? We're desperate for a lift." Might as well start off with an outrageous statement.

Eight men with weapons. Even though Collin's band numbered a few more than that, they hadn't a blade to their names.

"The damned slavers are after us." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, figuring he'd try to talk his way into their good graces and run at the very last minute if need be. "We're sailors like yourselves who've gotten on the bad side of the lady Tiana of Vanhatu and need to get back to our ship which sits in her harbor." Hopefully the Luck was floating again.

There was absolutely no softening of the murderous gazes.

"Captain Darius of the Black Goose is a friend of ours. You might know him? And an old salt called Garney who lives in a cove not unsimiliar to this up the coast a day or so out of Vahnatu."

At the mention of Garney's name a few of the men hesitated, exchanging glances.

"You know ol' gimp legged Garney?"

Collin let out a breath of relief. "Know him? He and I sang many a song together, drunk off that swill he brews behind his hut."

Still suspicious, the black marketeers approached, weapons still in hand, but not so threateningly.

"And what name do you go by and what ship do you sail?"

"Collin. Cook and surgeon of the Luck."

"Never heard of the Luck, bonecutter. She's not no shadow runner off this coast."

"Not a shadow runner at all, but a merchanteer from Khell that ran afoul of the lady Tiana. The bitch sank her in the harbor at Vahnatu."

A murmur of shock went up from the pirates. The sinking of a man's ship was the foulest deed imaginable to such men.

"A dark hearted shrew, that one." The leader of the black marketeers commiserated. "If she don't try to tax us to death, she breaks our backs."

"She'll do more than that." Collin said solemnly. "She's made alliances with things an honest sailor would want no congress with and if we can't get back to our ship and warn the folks that can stop her, we'll all of us be sorrier because of it."

"What things?" the pirate asked suspiciously, superstition warming in his eyes.

Collin smiled grimly, knowing a ready audience when he saw one.

 

*

 

Dharva woke with a headache, and roiling nausea in the pit of her stomach that plainly bespoke her lack of tolerance for strong drink. Somehow or another, even knowing better, she had partaken of a great deal of wine last night. So much that the latter part of the evening was a blur in her memory. She vaguely recalled a sumptuous dinner and a great deal of conversation during and afterwards. Then music from somewhere and someone had suggested she dance. The prince she thought, with a groan. And she'd been light headed enough to let him drag her out and swing her around in the midst of a few other couples fleeing the dreadfully dour talk of resurrected spirits. She seemed to recall even dancing with Anson.

After that, everything dissolved into sounds and colors and no proper memory at all. Until she woke with the results of the evenings activities. She groaned and sat on the side of the bed, hands tangled in her curls, wishing she knew a spattering of healing spells. Anything to drive away the nausea. The head ache she could deal with if only she didn't feel the urge to throw up everything she'd consumed within the last few days.

Moving like an old woman, she slipped out of bed and groped for her clothing. Her tunic and trousers had been washed and pressed. They smelled of some exotic fragrance, the odor of which made her turn a little green. She swallowed back bile and hurried out of her room, wondering how late in the day it was. The day was very bright indeed outside her window.

She passed the informal dining room in her search for Anson or Pyphin and was somewhat pleased to see Filipe and one of the other apprentices looking as hungover as she felt, as they stared resolutely at a buffet sat out along a sideboard.

"Where's master Pyphin?" she asked, careful not to look directly at the food herself. The smell of strong, dark tea was not unpleasant, so she gingerly poured a cup, dousing it liberally with honey. Filipe tried to look at her scornfully, but was too sick to hold the expression. His face fell and he gestured listlessly towards the window.

"In the city. He and the other masters went to the Archives to see what additional information they can find about the Astaza stone."

"Oh. I knew a man that was from Astaza. Who's grandfather is one of the guardians."

"Well little good that does us unless you can pull him out of your hat." Filipe sniffed.

"I wish I could." Dharva said. She rather missed Collin. She had enjoyed his company. She hoped he was well. She hoped they were all well, even though they had failed to place Pyphin's seal.

Upon further questioning she learned that Anson and the prince had gone to the docks to see to the outfitting of a ship that would take them all along the coast cold north and Astaza.

Not seeing how she could be of help in either mission, she resigned herself to moping about the palace until her comrades returned. Aya found her as she was going back to her room, claiming she had a surprise for her.

There was a great deal of clothing waiting for her. All of practical, solid design, which disappointed her somewhat. She really had liked the feel of the silken sari she'd worn last night, but one could hardly expect to traipse around in a silken wrap when one was traveling to the frigid north. There were thick lambskin jackets and tall boots lined with the same stuff. Soft leather pants and tunics, thick linen undershirts, gloves and a new cloak died bright blue. More clothing than could easily fit into a pack. She looked at it all, flabbergasted while prince Ilrath's youngest wife smiled in satisfaction.

"Thank you." Was all she could come up with to say. Aya's smile widened.

"It is the very least I could do for such an esteemed sorceress."

"Oh. I'm not a sorceress yet. I'm just an apprentice."

"But you will be one day. And you have accomplished much already. I can tell everyone I'm your friend, yes?"

Dharva blinked at her, wondering why she would want to brag of such a thing.

"I never even leave the city, much less roam the lands in search of adventure." The Se-kre explained.

"I don't exactly search for it." Dharva muttered, embarrassed.

"But it finds you nonetheless."

 

Another ship. Dharva felt as if she were living her life on shipboard. She had hardly had three days to get her land legs back before she was stomping up the ramp of a sea going vessel that sat at dock in the midst of a bevy of royal warships in the Perthian harbor. Pyphin was in a terrible hurry to be on his way. He'd come back from the city archives with an armful of old texts, which he'd sat up all night reading. She didn't think he'd gotten any sleep at all, from the purple smudges under his wrinkled eyes.

Anson looked a little better. At least his smudges were paler and he had a chipper spring to his gait. All the apprentices and old masters boarded along with a contingent of Khellian men at arms. Prince Ilrath would follow them out, in command of one of a pair of sleek war ships that his father the emperor had agreed to release into Pyphin's immediate service, while a more tangible force was gathered to patrol for Danarian invasion. The emperor was still not convinced a fleet from Danar would be a threat. Pyphin had stopped arguing, more intent on his new goal of finding and awakening the spirit Kurisar and using it to repel Kerisai.

"Scared?" Anson joined her at the rail as the ship slowly drifted out from dock.

She looked up at him askance, gnawing at her lip. "Sometimes I am. Sometimes it just doesn't sink in. Its hard to work up terror for something you've never even seen."

"I've read enough to wet my nightmares." He said. "But I suppose you're right. Its not quite real yet. The Kerisai cultists that tried to kill us -- they're real. They're a threat that I can sink my teeth into. Kerisai himself? That's another matter. Pyphin seems convinced enough of the danger for all of us, though."

"He's spent a lifetime studying the great spirits."

"Yes. And you've barely started studying the little ones. You're getting adept at fire magic. Earth should be the next to master by all standards, but we won't be seeing a lot of that for a while. Would you like to start learning a few water spells?"

"Do -- do you think I'm ready to undertake another element?"

"I think you're more ready than Filipe and his bunch of snobbish cronies. Besides, it's three weeks or more till we reach the northern tip. What else do we have to occupy ourselves?"

 

*

 

The rigors of the journey back to Corrath, though exhausting, were no more than mere fluttering annoyances at the corner of Tiana's awareness. The nectar of victory colored everything else. A lifetime's worth of effort, of grueling study and sacrifice come to fruition. They had their god back. After countless years, Kerisai was free to roam the world of mortal man again. And it had been by her hand. There were a hundred secret cults scattered about Khell and Danar, generations upon generations of sorcerers that refused to let the secrets of Kerisai die and out of all of them, it had been her triumph that had finally broken the age old secret of the three stones.

Her name would go down in the annuls of history. She would be His high priestess. His chosen consort. She already laid the foundations for that. He followed her lead easily enough, newly released from centuries of slumber. The constraints of mortal flesh hampered him, who had been boundless spirit. She thought that lent to his distraction, his pondering silences as he accustomed himself to his new shell and the world that housed it.

She made plans and dreamed dreams. And Kerisai rode beside her in silence, his eyes as ever drawn towards the east.

Outside the walls of Corrath his attention wavered, caught by the mulling array of carts and people entering or leaving the city. Undisciplined folk, inconsequential specks of life that had no meaning other than being human fodder for the power of people like her. They were less than that to something such as Kerisai.

They made hasty way for the party of their lord. Sinnah's men at the gates saluted them as they rode though. The men who had accompanied the slaver lord called out to their brethren, boisterous in their return home. More than happy with the sport they'd had with the children guarding the third stone. Rough men who took pleasure in the slaughter of innocents. If innocents those children had been, living so long under the influence of the third stone. The type of men who would carry out the goals of her dark god with relish. All they required was the proper compensation and their souls could be bought.

She had given them a taste of reward on the road back, letting them play with Theo. She never forgot a sleight and he more than deserved the punishment. He was another peripheral distraction. She hadn't the time to deal with him -- she wasn't even sure she still wanted him, other than to satiate her taste for vengeance. He was satisfyingly cowed now. Terrified into respect. She ought to let Sinnah have him, but she was jealous of her possessions. She might give away what was not sought after, but to part with a thing badly wanted --- not without getting something in return of far greater value.

Through the crowded market that bustled within the gates, where despite the warnings of gate guards and the presence of armed men, filthy beggars came up looking for handouts. The scum of humanity, those not even worth the time to brand and send into slavery. Tiana turned her nose up, protected from their touch by Sinnah on one side of her horse and the foreboding figure of Kerisai on her other.

A too eager hand reached out, clutching at Kerisai's trouser leg, holding onto the his stirrup as desperate eyes looked up in supplication. A copper. That was all they begged for.

Sinnah waved men forward to drive the beggars away by swordpoint if necessary. Kerisai reached down and placed his large hand upon the skull of the trespasser. Almost it seemed a benediction. The small spirits that were ever present since Kerisai's awakening gathered in the air about him in agitation. The peasant's eyes widened. His mouth opened in an expression of bewilderment. A strange, wheezing sound escaped his lips. And then, between one breath and the next, it was like all the pulpy stuff that filled his skin was sucked out. He shrank in on himself like a dried apple and dangled there in Kerisai's powerful grip. Then the skin itself cracked and split, crumbling like ancient parchment and bit by bit the bones tumbled to a pile on the ground.

Tiana stared in fascination. The people close about drew back in alarm and a few horrified cries sounded, but Sinnah's men were pushing them away. Kerisai had kicked his horse back into lazy motion, as if nothing untoward had happened. Tiana glanced to Sinnah and saw his face frozen in shock. A slow smile spread over her own.

"It might be wise to tell your servants to be leery of touching him. Although he seems rather tidy in his displeasure." She observed looking back at the neat pile of bone and dust.

"Of -- of course." Sinnah was staring still at Kerisai, as if it were only now occurring to him that this was a god in their midst.

Tiana's heart soared. The first display of power since he had healed the body he had come to possess. The first delicious taste of his dark might. She could hardly wait to gather her followers and honor him with ancient ritual. She had brought priests of the dark spirit with her when she'd sailed down the coast to Corrath. The varied agents of Kerisai would also be gathering, whether here in Danar or in Khell, all of them being attuned to their dark god and certainly having sensed his resurrection.

Sinnah's walled manor loomed ahead. Sandstone colored towers that perched over the city like an ever present warden. His slaves hurried to relieve her of the burden's of travel, but even such luxuries as bath and massage seemed dim to her. She let well trained hands rub oils into her skin and work the tension from her flesh, but her mind was on the reception she would receive from those waiting to hear word of her success.

She barely had the patience to let her maid paint her eyes and lips, and arrange the red flag of her hair under a silken veil before she slipped into the room her immortal master had been given. She'd seen to it, it was next to hers. Sol and Darak waited outside her door, silent and impassive in the face of all that had happened. Well used to the ways of magic having served Tiana so long. They trailed her to Kerisai's door and planted themselves in the hall outside while she passed the portal.

It took her a moment to find him. Through the open balcony doors she saw his broad back. His shoulders strained at the tunic of Darak's that he had been given upon his resurrection. There had been fine robes laid out for him upon the foot of the bed. Untouched. She frowned, a slight prickle of annoyance that he cared so little for the mundane things. If he disregarded humanity completely he would be hard to sway. But perhaps it was the mere novelty of his situation that had him perplexed.

"My lord?" She announced herself before approaching him, not willing to give offense. He did not move to look at her. He gazed steadily eastward. She moved onto the small balcony, looking at the muddy colors of sunset with him.

"What do you see, my lord Kerisai?"

"Mine enemy." He spoke, surprising her with such a clear answer. He had given her little enough responses in the days it had taken to reach Corrath.

"There is no enemy here in Danar. We of the Dark Lands have been faithful to you all these long years. We have not let your ways die."

"Danar. Danar. A wilderness where men do not dwell."

"Perhaps in your time, my lord, but it is well populated now. Your followers gather here."

"Why not in the rich lands of Khell?"

She hesitated in answering that, formulating her words. "Khell is immersed in the followers of Kurasar. Those teachings have spread from city to city like a plague. We shall bring them salvation now that you have returned. We shall make them see the error of their beliefs and then Khell too shall be a land loyal to you."

For a brief second his gaze settled upon her. Brilliant blue eyes that seemed to burn with inner power. The strong lines of his face were harsh, too broad and angular to suit Tiana's sense of aesthetics, but it was not a displeasing face. It was a face that men might bow down to. It suited the strength of the body.

"Will you show yourself, my lord Kerisai, to your loyal priests that they might know of your resurrection and spread word among the people?"

"I remember priests." He said.

Whether that was good or bad, she could not fathom and he did not enucleate. But he left the room at her urging, even went so far as to shed the dust stained clothing he had ridden to Corrath in and don the silken robes.

There was a fine temple to Kerisai in the prosperous section of town around Sinnah's manor. A squat, stone building with thick doric column's lining the facade, casting the entrance way into deep shadow. Torches flickered beside two bronze doors. A hooded acolyte hurried to pull them open when they rode up in the company of an escort of her own men.

Faceless men formed reverent lines down the atrium as they entered. Hardly a whisper escaped them, but their excited breathing could be heard. Tiana felt giddy with the glory of this moment.

They started a ritualistic chanting. A deep singsong melody of male voices using a language that very few living men still knew. She hummed with it, swaying in the naive, with the silently powerful presence of Kerisai behind her.

She lifted her hands and cried out the time honored words.

"We who follow in the footsteps of darkness."

A answering murmur of response echoed through the shadows of the temple.

"We who tend the hearth of the great one, the avenger, the taker of souls and spend our blood in his behalf."

Again the answering chant.

"We shall rise in power in his name and he shall return to lead us to glory." She shouted the last part and the answering foray rebounded off the walls. "Our sacrifice has not been in vain, faithful ones, for I have found the prison stone our enemies trapped our lord within and shattered it. We shall bask under his wisdom and flourish under his power."

The name of Kerisai reverberated over and over. She drew breath to be heard over it, and was suddenly brushed aside as Kerisai moved past her to stalk down the aisle, the silken folds of his black robe rippling. Silence swept over the assembled priests. Tiana gaped, then schooled her features.

She tried not to seem as if she were hurrying to catch up with him. It would be unseemly under the avid gazes of so many of her fellows. But she walked quickly nonetheless, reaching her newly awakened god as he swung up onto his horse outside the temple.

"My lord? Is something wrong? Why do you forsake your disciples?"

He looked down at her disdainfully. "Priests. I remember priests. They vowed loyalty before and turned against me in the end."

"But not this time." She assured him, going so far as to put a hand on his stirrup.

"No." He agreed. "Not this time. East. My enemy lies east. If you would have my benediction, then prepare to journey there."

"But -- my lord. We're not ready yet to face the forces of Khell."

His eyes so translucent a blue flared with a sudden fiery glow. The air was suddenly ripe with spirits attracted to the scent of power. Even her guard seemed to sense them, for men looked into the air about them with shifting, nervous eyes.

"You are My servant, are you not? Will you act like it or shall I find another?" Softly spoken, yet the words shook her to her bones. She stepped back, clutching her hand as if burned.

"As you will, my lord." She whispered. His gaze left her. He wheeled his mount and rode away. Her men mulled about uncertainly till she jerked a furious hand and snapped.

"Send an escort with him, fools."

Her face burned. Her hands trembled with embarrassment. Impotent rage built within her. To have gone to such lengths and be treated so. Like the lowliest servant. To be humiliated before the priests of her own congregation, before the common eyes of her guard. She ought to kill the men who'd seen. She trembled on the verge of it, but they were looking anywhere but her, faces trained to neutrality. She drew a stifled breath of hostility with no place to vent it.

 

 

 

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